As the tidal wave of plastic waste continues to swell, the world finds itself in the midst of a “perfect storm” of sorts – a storm precipitated by intensifying public awareness around the material’s environmental impacts; international plastic exportation bans; and domestic, state-level policies aimed at tackling plastic waste.
Attention to the issue has amplified with COVID-19-driven spikes in single-use plastics, and as parties to the Basel Convention—189 countries— have pledged to stop exporting plastic waste to countries without those countries’ approval.
In the eye of this storm there is potential new opportunity to turn that waste into value - with emerging recycling technologies. Most of the “advanced” recycling technologies, as they are commonly designated, depend on chemical processes to break down plastics to their building blocks so they can be put into new products while maintaining virgin quality.
But these complex systems face a challenging path to commercialization and will need solid backing from policymakers, investors and industry executives to build robust infrastructure.
Some stakeholders are buying into and/or considering multiple avenues to push some of these technologies forward. On the policy front, a few U.S. states are reclassifying advanced recycling under manufacturing which, among benefits, will make the permitting process easier.
Some governments are mandating that specified amounts of recycled plastic content be incorporated into products, boosting demand for clean recyclate for multiple applications.
Martin Koehring, who has directed research on recycling technologies for Economist Impact, points to a European Union target to incorporate 25% recycled plastic content in certain products by 2025, and to California legislation that will require plastic bottles to have 50% recycled content by 2030. He believes these moves will call for “significant improvement in the recycled plastic value chain, including via advanced technologies.”
Still, there is limited to no policy framework aimed specifically at advancing these technologies with their expanded capabilities.
Circulate Capital, an investment fund manager focused on promoting a circular economy and curbing ocean plastics, watches the advanced recycling space closely. Adding insight on the financing piece, Rob Kaplan, founder and CEO of Circulate Capital, shares what his company considers to help guide its investment decisions.
“When we are looking at technology providers, we keep a few points in mind. One is flexibility to accept different feedstocks and compositions of feedstock," he says. "We also look at modularity, which enables deployment to different locations and to operate at different scales. And we consider if material has enough value and if there is access to a supply chain to bring it to market."
One of its investments is in Danville, Va.- based textiles recycler, Circ, whose technology returns clothes back to raw materials. Circ can process mixed textiles, such as cotton-polyester blends.
“We like that because it’s flexible; they can take a variety of feedstocks whether PET bottles, polyester, or cotton fabrics," Kaplan says.
He says that flexibility is important because while some of the technologies are proven, a lacking feedstock supply is holding back their advancement.
The consensus of some industry experts is that policies need to focus on improving collection, sorting, and processing, as well as helping ensure access to feedstock.
“If you are talking about $50 to $250 million of capital to build an advanced recycling plant you better be sure you will have access to feedstock to run that plant, and that’s where policy can come in," Kaplan says. "We have not seen that happen yet. I think policies have been more system- level rather than dedicated to such a specific purpose as advanced recycling."
He expects to see more Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs and is already seeing adoption and or interest in Asia, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. But that money primarily supports collection and sorting.
He has noted stronger regulatory and policy activity to address plastic pollution in the last couple of years than in the last 10.
“And the global plastic treaty [Basel Convention, which tightly regulates plastic shipments overseas] is unprecedented," Kaplan explains. "So, there’s policy engagement and interest. But I think we are probably five to 10 years away from having policies implemented in the space of advanced recycling."
He views a multistep process as the way to catalyze step change.
“Policymakers should focus during the short term on diverting from landfill and the environment and getting materials to the highest and best use [through existing approaches] in collection, sorting, processing and manufacturing," Kaplan says. "This will enable in the medium term advanced recycling to be layered in on top of that.”
Today, several of the technologies are at conceptual stages or running at demo plants, which has put up funding barriers.
“These technologies are at a difficult stage because they need secure, long-term investments that infrastructure investors can provide. However, the risk profile is high due to their unproven nature, which is more aligned with venture capitalists or impact investors who want short-term, high returns,” says Claudia Amos, technical director - Plastics Technology, Infrastructure & Commercial Due Diligence, Anthesis Group. Anthesis supports large organizations in their sustainability journeys.
Scaling and commercializing also hinges on what is perceived as recycling by multiple stakeholders, from brands that commit to using recyclate, to consumers and regulators with their own objectives and ideas, believes Amos.
“They all have input," she says. "And they influence decisions because, depending on what you perceive as recycling, there will be certain processes leveraged to satisfy expectations.”
Gaining consumer and brand confidence in these complicated processes will be key. Product certification will be important to winning that confidence, proving a technology can deliver the promised quality and output, and can be sold in a given market. But certifying a multitude of outputs from a multitude of technologies will be a challenge in and of itself, especially when they undergo complex processes.
It's easy to vet a pellet, but when oil or gas is made, then converted to a pellet, it’s not.
The fact that a variety of materials are mixed to recreate polymers creates other challenges. It’s not easy tracing what comes out at the end of the process to determine how much is recycled content.
Tracing recycled content through the entire system will require leveraging a method called mass balancing where the material that comes out at the end is attributed to the waste input that goes in.
Mass balancing has existed for years to trace biofuel and needs to be applied to these new technologies, Amos says. But they are relatively small-scale operations and tracing many small-scale inputs to a huge polymer supply chain is difficult.
But what’s most critical to implementation and scaling she says, is “We really need to get the investment in; I think that’s key to what has to happen. And we need more international product standards where we all agree on what counts as recycled; what is recycled; and how products are created and traced.
I think that will help with demand and getting those technologies into the market.”
This two-part series assesses several emerging recycling technologies, including chemical processes and an experimental biological process, as well as a few more established mechanical recycling methods. It goes on to discuss what some industry experts say is needed in the way of policy and funding to advance the emerging technologies. Read Part 1 here.